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Heather Beem: Showing Passion In Science Promotion


Today on this edition of the Journey So Far, I took the chance to interview, Heather Beem an American who has shown her passion in promoting science education in Ghana. An MIT graduate with a PHD in Engineering, she is one of the youngest people that have touched my heart and I deem it most rewarding to have had an interview with.
In this interview she takes us through her journey of becoming one of the youngest change makers and PHD holders.
Prince: When and where were you born?
Heather: I was born in South Dakota, USA in 1987.
Prince: What have being your education history and qualifications so far?
Heather: I studied Mechanical Engineering for my first degree at Oklahoma State University. Then I went directly to graduate school. I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I just completed my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, both in the US.
Prince: Great and what have some of the remarkable achievements you’ve chalked during these years?
Heather: For my first degree, our final senior year project was to enter into an international competition with other university students to build a remote control airplane.
The competition is called Design, Build, Fly.
Each year there is a different design requirement: the plane should carry some amount of objects; it should fly as quickly as possible around a set track, and should be as light as possible.
There were different sub-teams in our group: Aerodynamics, Structures, and Propulsion
I led the Structures Team.
We were very happy to win 1st place in the competition
We even beat the university where I currently go to school: MIT
Prince: Congrats, What’s the fulfillment in attaining a PhD at a very young age, and especially as a female in mechanical engineering?
Heather: I’m very thankful to have been able to make it to this stage – I feel very blessed to have had many opportunities open for me that I could take advantage of.
I guess I don’t think of myself as being so much younger than the average person finishing their Ph.D.
Since different people take different amounts of time to go through such a long program, there’s a range of ages when people finish.
But yes, there is still a gap in the number of females represented in my field.
It is slowly closing – we have perhaps 20% of the students in my department that are female, which is higher than before.
And my lab happens to be about 50/50
I think what the gap has meant for me, is perhaps that it has been harder to find mentors to help me visualize where I can go next in my career.
It makes for a different team dynamic to work with mostly guys during projects as opposed to mostly girls, but I haven’t felt oppressed or put down by my male colleagues.
I mostly feel the effect when I talk to people outside of engineering, who seem shocked or intrigued by my decision to study this.
I do hope that the gap continues close and that more females will study engineering, since I think it’s a great field!
Prince: You run an organization focused on the development of SCIENCE in Africa. Why Africa?
Heather: Ever since my siblings and I were young, our family would travel. I think it’s engrained in me. I love exploring, visiting new places, and interacting with different people.
I joined up with a few fellow students here to do something in the realm of science education.
We are starting in Ghana because my teammates had been there before through previous class projects and therefore had good connections for us to build off of.
It is great to work in Africa, because there is a buzz in the air, a sense that things are happening, and we would love to be a part of that. It is an exciting place to be.
But also we are choosing it because we have found people there who are interested in the types of things we are talking about. Many teachers we ask would like to make their science classes more practical, but they aren’t sure how.
We love coming up with creative ways to be resourceful, so we are excited to work with them and come up with ideas together for low-cost ways to demo science activities.
Prince: So what do you do with your organization?
Heather: We work with JHS science teachers and coordinators to design hands-on activities for the syllabus topics.
We do this by hosting workshops, where we demo and create activities that can be done using everyday materials.
You can use water bottles to demonstrate chemical reactions, you can use batteries and wires to demonstrate electromagnetism, you can use flower petals as pH indicators.
Prince: Where are you looking at extending this project to?
Heather: We have a great partnership through the Ghana Association of Science Teachers – Greater Accra, so that is the region where we are starting.
Over the spring and summer of 2015, we will be scaling up this pilot program to try and reach all JHS teachers in Greater Accra.
Our vision is to scale the workshops across the whole country and then beyond to other countries in West Africa.
It is a big vision, but we are trying our best to make all the pieces come together!
Prince: What have being the feedback from beneficiaries so far?
Heather: The workshop that we ran in November was very well-received.
The feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive.
The ability to create hands-on activities was demystified – they believed it was possible to create activities with local materials and most everyone stated feeling comfortable replicating everything they saw.
Prince: What major role do you envisage that science will play in the economical development of Ghana hence the importance to create this project?
Heather: I truly believe that enhancing science and engineering education can have economic impact.
It is a long-term process, but that is the root of why we are working on this.
Engaging youth in the process of exploration, discovery, and creation that is involved in science and engineering will enhance their creativity and curiosity.
These attributes are what will enable the next generation of leaders to solve problems, regardless of whether or not they continue to study science and engineering in university and beyond.
Prince: Thank you very much for what you are doing for my country. Aside this current project what are your future plans as a Mechanical Engineer.
Heather: We are still in the middle of the process, but I am excited to see what can unfold. And this is fun for me too!
Next semester, I am teaching at class at MIT called D-Lab: Education. It is a class where we help undergraduate students learn about the design process, practice teaching it, and then travel over the summer to work with communities abroad.
So next semester, I will be working on PEN and teaching this class.
In the longer term, I would like to do more technical research.
I think it is possible to combine this desire with some of our work in PEN. I will be trying to hone in on what that can look like over the coming months.
Prince: What are some of the global problems you would be solving through your research?
Heather: That is what I need some time to think about to try and figure out what problems match my skills and interests.
Education and clean water are likely candidates.
Prince: You are an inspiration to us especially the females, what would be your advice to young females who want to do engineering and to the highest level as you are aspiring?
Heather: Study hard in science and math, take time to try building things, engage your curiosity by asking lots of questions about how things work
Don’t limit yourself – even if you don’t feel that you are a “naturally good” engineer, go for it!
Everything can be learned – you don’t need any so-called natural talent. It is more about working hard. So if you’re interested in studying or working on something set that as your goal and makes small steps to reach it. Don’t listen to other people who tell you that you won’t or can’t make it.
Prince: Its being an amazing moment for me so far, what acknowledgments do you have to the people who have supported you through it all till now?
Heather: So many!
God has opened up all of these opportunities for me. Especially in the last few years, I’ve realized how much he has done for me and how much I need to rely on him to reach my goals.
My family for pushing me to study hard in science and math and reach high with my goals. But also lovingly supporting me in whatever path I decide to take.
My friends for being a great support and challenging me to draw close to God.
My teammates, without whom I wouldn’t have been able to even dream up what we’re working on. I’ve learned a lot about science and valuing people by working with them.
MIT for being a place that encourages new ideas and trying them out.
Prince: Thank you very much for your time and opportunity to share your story with us.
Heather: You’re welcome!

Akpah Prince

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